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All music can trace its origins to Africa, a musician argues at the start of Tango Negro. For the next 94 minutes, the free-flowing documentary dances through Argentina’s history of cultural appropriation to show how the country’s signature dance found its groove in the history of slavery.
The film’s conversational structure is loose, making it easy to lose track of the tangled history among revolving talking heads. The panel of mostly male experts encompasses musicians, musicologists, journalists, and locals, whose overgrown interviews could have sorely used a trimming. Together, their rambling testimonies string together an unwieldy timeline, full of loose ends and unexplored tangents.
Tango Negro is more concerned about the music’s imprecise origins than with the history of the dance itself. Just like the music, African cultural traditions were appropriated and developed upon to create the steps now recognized as Argentine tango, which later spun off variations. While Tango Negro prefers to leave the footsteps out of the frame for almost a third of its running time, it does explain a few details, like how African-inspired cumbia dances led to tango’s close belly-to-belly connection.
The musical interludes of rarely heard recordings are an impressive find, but the movie’s messy approach to telling tango’s hidden history seems at odds with itself. Tango Negro seems to wander through cafés, clubs, and parlor rooms like a tourist with no itinerary. Audiences will leave the dance floor with only a vaguely improved understanding of the African roots of tango.
Tango Negro: The African Roots of Tango
Directed by Dom Pedro
Opens August 14, MIST Harlem